Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Geoffrey’s Medieval Enigma

I had wanted to read Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain for decades. I have loved the story of Arthur ever since Christmas Day of my eighth year, when I opened my new copy of Sidney Lanier’s version of the tales, and gave up after reading, “It befell in the days of King Utherpendragon.” I didn’t know the word “befell” and didn’t know what to do with the mind-blowing discovery that a word could have as many as fourteen letters. But the language sounded beautiful, and I wanted to be able to understand it. When I finally did read the book, I read about a Christian king who met a tragic end, and I loved him for the ideals he held in his heart and pitied him that he could not hold them in all his actions. Naturally when I heard of Geoffrey’s twelfth-century source of part of the Arthurian legend, I determined that I would take it on one day. I didn’t know how much it would puzzle me, how long a story it would tell, or that it would show Arthur’s tragic fall as emblematic of the entire thousand-year story of the Britons.

Geoffrey has the Britons descending from Aeneas. That pedigree tells us two things right away: that the Britons had noble blood and that they were doomed to fall, like their ancestors, to a less noble people. (The Romans should have seen both sides of that coin when they claimed also to descend from the Trojan prince, but then they never were very good at heeding soothsayers’ warnings.) After a few centuries of sacking Rome and taking France, Norway, and Iceland into their realm, Geoffrey’s Briton monarchs become Christian Romans (Constantine is one of the kings) ruling over the Island of Albion in wisdom and justice. But then Vortigern invites Saxons named Hengist and Horsa to Britain to assist him in battle. They might as well have brought a giant, hollow, wooden horse filled with soldiers, because the story follows a path of deception and destruction by the Saxons from this point on. The Saxons betray Vortigern and poison King Aurelius Ambrosius (Uther’s brother) after making vows of loyalty to him. Then, just as Arthur is about to force the Roman emperor to pay tribute to Britain, he has to rush home to face an alliance of the Saxons with his wicked nephew Modred. In just another couple of generations after Arthur’s time, the Saxons have pushed the noble Britons back into Cornwall and Wales and occupy all the rest of the southern part of the island. The Britons may not like their fate, but they accept it with grace knowing that they are receiving just punishment for their sins.

The book begins with Aeneas, includes the story of Vortigern finding two dragons living under a lake, and has Britain ruling almost all of Europe just before the Dark Ages. It seems totally mythical despite the author’s claim to its historicity. And yet Geoffrey ties several historical figures into his narrative thread and has the general outline of the story of the Britons right (coming from the Mediterranean to settle the island, mingling with Romans, becoming Christianized, retreating to the western peninsulas in the face of Saxon advances). Did he believe any of it? He claims to have found his story in “a very ancient book” written in the British tongue. Did such a book actually exist? An author presenting what he knows is a fanciful tale as actual history seems totally out of character with the Middle Ages, as familiar as the technique is to us. But what else could this book be?

Whether disingenuous history, whimsical poetic creation, or simply grossly uncritical acceptance of earlier writing, Geoffrey’s is a good tale. It begins with the calamity of exiles from the fallen city of Troy and ends with exiles from the fallen kingdom of Britain. And yet in the middle, the protagonist – the race of the Britons as a whole – finds truth and hope that give meaning to even the saddest of earthly fates.

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